Traditional navies as well as maritime terrorists can and have used mines and underwater improvised explosive devices (UWIEDs) to challenge military and commercial uses of the seas. More than thirty countries produce mines, and twenty countries export them. Iran has reportedly laid several thousand naval mines, North Korea’s 50,000, China 100,000 or so, and Russia estimated quarter-million. Since World War II, sea mines have damaged or sunk four times more U.S. Navy ships than all other means of attack combined, according to a Navy report on mine warfare.
Sea mines range from cheap, simple explosive devices which many fear may fall in the hands of terrorists, to sophisticated computerized systems equipped with sensors and designed to wait hidden on the sea bed for years until the right target presents itself. They are fitted with acoustic, magnetic, seismic, and pressure sensors, which can pinpoint the size and shape of a ship moving in water and detect ship’s approach. They have become stealthier by minimizing their sonar profiles, smarter in distinguishing targets from decoys and evolved into lethal systems that can fire torpedoes. There are also rumors of nuclear armed mines in the inventories of China and North Korea. They have potential to become surprise weapon in any future war. Indeed, sea mines are key to regional navies’ anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) and sea-control strategies and operations.
Mine warfare is important component of US Navy’s one of the nine S&T focus areas of “Assure Access to Maritime Battle space”. Proliferation of anti-access, area denial capacity and capabilities among potential adversaries drives the need for technologies that assure access for naval forces, says US Navy. The capability to detect, locate, classify and neutralise these weapons remains a key requirement for navies around the world. “Mines are a type of asymmetric warfare. They are cheap. They are easy to place. They’re a nuisance and they are out there,” Frank DiGiovanni, deputy director of the expeditionary warfare division of the U.S. Navy, said at the Undersea Defense Technology symposium in Stockholm, Sweden. They are not just a military problem as they can threaten commercial sea traffic and impede free trade, he noted
This has led to new demands for revolutionary and enhanced Mine Countermeasures (MCM) platforms and systems.
In April 2019, an investment worth £75 million has been confirmed for new Royal Navy technology, including robots and autonomous mine-hunters. The funds will be spent on a new joint military and industry hi-tech accelerator, NavyX, and two new autonomous mine-hunter vessels with cutting-edge sonars. These will enable remote mine-hunting in the Gulf at a higher range, speed and accuracy.
The Indian Navy (IN) signed an INR3.06 billion (USD42.8 million) deal in February 2019 with Thales Australia for the supply of eight additional underwater mine countermeasure systems for fitment onto the service’s fast-attack craft. Senior naval officers told Jane’s the that the systems, which are equipped with advanced acoustic and magnetic generators capable of emulating a vessel’s signature, would be fitted onto the IN’s fast-attack craft to sweep and destroy mines planted in harbours, shipping lanes leading to ports, and around offshore installations. The operational necessity to acquire more of these systems has gained urgency as the IN is left with just one operational Soviet-era minesweeper – INS Kozhikode – after numerous attempts made since 2004 to acquire MCMVs have failed to materialise.
There are three important goals to improve counter-mine warfare technology, DiGiovanni said. Navies must improve the speed of clearing mines, the accuracy of their detection systems, and they must reduce the cost of operations, he said.
Mine Countermeasures (MCM) include both mine-hunting and minesweeping . Mine hunting is the safest and most effective method of dealing with mines, particularly with modern influence mines. Mine countermeasures vessels equipped with variable-depth sonars, hull-mounted sonars and minesweeping systems are primary systems to detect and remove mines. Upon identifying the target using sonar, the mine-hunter vessel neutralizes the explosive with the help of deep-sea divers or remotely operated vehicles (ROVs).
Influence minesweeping uses acoustic, magnetic, and pressure signals to detonate emplaced mines. Mechanical sweeping uses a towed sled or other type of device to cut the cables of moored mines. These mines then float to the surface and are detonated by other means.
With improvements in autonomy, endurance, underwater navigation, data communication, detection and identification sensors, Autonomous Underwater vehicles are increasingly being used for mine countermeasures.
Oceanic conditions greatly influence offensive mining and MCM operations. Variations in environmental parameters, such as bathymetry, salinity, temperature, tidal range, currents, water clarity, and seafloor character, can alter and significantly degrade sensor performance and reduce operational capabilities
Capt. Herman de Groot, commanding officer of the submarine service in the Royal Netherlands Navy, said whatever the technical solutions are to countering sea mines, they must be viable during an “all out war.” He has seen a lot of technologies out there that purport to solve the counter-mine problem that may work great during exercises, but may not be the best solution in real-world scenarios. “If all hell breaks loose, we still have to do our job,” he said.
Remotely Controlled and Autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs)
Autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) have gained increasingly importance in the area of reconnaissance and mine countermeasures (MCM). It is expected that AUVs will be integral part of seagoing vessels. Unmanned systems have the potential to clear larger areas and to keep personnel and vessels out of the danger zone. Using unmanned systems, Owens said, will lead to a significantly more effective minehunting operation. “It’s a force protection aspect, certainly,” he said. “But probably as important, or more so, from our mission standpoint, is that the unmanned systems don’t have crew decks. They don’t get fatigued after eight hours in the direct sun working a minehunting problem. We can do this reliably 24 hours a day, not affected by darkness, not affected by the heat … it gives us the ability to over time really expand our clearance rates.”
A major disadvantage of a typical MCM AUV operation is the time delay between survey and evaluation of collected side scan sonar data which typically doubles the overall mission duration. In order to exploit the full potential of MCM AUV missions, on-board data processing and the capability of online automatic detection and classification (ADAC) of mine-like objects is necessary.
US Navy’s Mine Countermeasure Platforms and systems
The Navy’s “triad” of “dedicated” mine countermeasures forces comprises surface mine countermeasure ships, airborne mine countermeasures helicopters, and Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) divers and their systems. Once a threat region has been identified and bounded, a sonar or laser detection sweep for candidate mines is conducted from an Avenger class ship (MCM-1), a LCS, or MCM helicopters (including the MH-60S or MH-53E).
AQS-24B & AQS-24C Minehunter
The AQS-24B completed fleet introduction as an upgrade to the already operational AQS-24A in the spring of 2017. The upgrade added a state-of-the-art High Speed Synthetic Aperture Sonar capability, developed and built by Northrop Grumman, which significantly increased the system’s sonar resolution for mine detection, localisation and classification.
The manufacturers say it uses a high-resolution, side scan sonar for real time detection, localisation and classification of mines at high coverage rates and a laser line scanner to provide precision optical identification. The AQS series minehunter is used both domestically and abroad and has logged thousands of hours of operation.
“The AQS-24B is operated from both the MH-53E heavy lift helicopters from Helicopter Mine countermeasures Squadron 15 (HM-15) and from the Mine Hunting Unmanned Surface Vessels (MHU) in the Arabian Gulf. Northrop Grumman’s AQS-24C mine hunting system, which builds upon the company’s AQS-24B that was introduced into the Navy’s fleet in 2017 and has been used from the MH-53E helicopter and an unmanned surface vehicle platform. The towed payload has reached a number of performance milestones, said Gene Cumm, director of international mine warfare at the company.
For example, the system was successfully towed at 400 feet from a boat in October, he said. The company also completed improvements to the platform’s optical sensors, which gives it increased laser power and an improved light filter. Additionally, Northrop recently completed initial in-water testing of a next-generation deploy-and-retrieval payload from the AQS-24, according to a company press release.
“Achieving this important milestone demonstrated reliable unmanned mine hunting operations, while using operationally representative hardware from the LCS MCM mission module,” said Alan Lytle, the company’s vice president of undersea systems. “This allows the program to begin preparation for further at-sea testing of the system for extended duration missions in rigorous conditions.” Northrop has delivered a total of 31 AQS-24 systems to the U.S. Navy and to Japan’s navy, Cumm said. That includes four A variants, 25 B variants and two C variants. Northrop is working on developing upgrades to give customers new capabilities, including ways to speed up mine clearance.
“When there is a mine threat, it’s all about how fast that threat can be erased, and the shipping lanes reopened for commerce,” he said in an email. “Systems that work at eight or nine knots are better than surface ships at two or three but can’t compare to ours at 18. That advantage is what is key to the warfighter and improving the ability to perform at that speed is our focus.” Capt. Danielle George, program manager for mine warfare under the Navy’s program executive office for unmanned and small combatants, said AQS-24C will offer the Navy rapid detection of moored mines. Fielding of the platform to the fleet is slated for 2020, according to George’s presentation slides at the Surface Navy Association’s annual conference in Arlington, Virginia.
The AQS-20, when coupled with Raytheon’s mine neutralizer Barracuda system, gives the service a way to destroy mines much faster than legacy platforms, he noted. “We can tow the AQS-20 at high speed and at depth. We can find the mines and then in real time we will … deploy a Barracuda in the water that will then swim up to the mine and autonomously neutralize the mine,” he said. “That will all happen 10 times faster than today’s methods.”
The Barracuda, which is the size of a sonobuoy, has been through preliminary design review. Raytheon is now preparing for critical design review, Knudson said. The Barracuda is a low-cost mine clearance capability that will be able to provide rapid reacquisition, identification and neutralization capability against near surface sea mines, according to George’s presentation slides. The program is currently in Milestone B and the Navy is commencing a detail design of the neutralizer vehicle.
Raytheon has so far delivered 40 AQS-20s to the Navy, including 10 of its latest C-variant which includes the latest synthetic aperture sonars and forward-looking sonars, Knudson said. The plan is for each ship carrying the MCM package to have two of the platforms. The AQS-20 is being integrated onto the Navy’s mine countermeasure unmanned surface vehicle, Textron’s common unmanned surface vehicle, or CUSV, he added.
“The Navy’s in the middle of integrating and testing not only the MCM USV but towing the AQS-20 behind it,” he said. The primary work surrounds the integration of the platform to show that it can tow the AQS-20 autonomously from the littoral combat ship. Both the AQS-20 and AQS-24 will be towed by the CUSV platform, and both are in initial integration and testing phases in Panama City, Florida, said Zach Bupp, program director for unmanned surface vehicles at Textron. Contractor testing is expected to wrap up in 2020, he added.
The common unmanned surface vehicle has an endurance of more than 20 hours, a range of about 87 miles, and a towing capacity of 4,000 pounds of force at 20 knots, according to the company. The craft — which the Navy calls the unmanned influence sweep system, or UISS — completed development tests and operational assessments in November 2019, Bupp said.
Current sweeping missions are conducted by aircraft, and while servicemembers are not operating from the surface of the water, there are still risks, Bupp said. Part of the benefit of the CUSV system is that it keeps sailors out of harm’s way, he added. “It keeps people at a safe distance from that minefield and is designed for a detonation event to occur and then continue on with its mission set,” he said. An initial operational test and evaluation event with the Navy is scheduled for the platform this summer off a littoral combat ship in San Diego, Bupp said.
“The international market for small craft MCM is emerging quickly, and the AQS-24 is a great fit for many of these emerging requirements,” he said. “The high-speed capability of the system, 18 knots, coupled with the integrated mine ID capability at high speed — 10 knots — make the system ideal for high performing small surface vessels.” Knudson noted that Raytheon is also looking to expand the market for the AQS-20 internationally and is eyeing allies in Europe, Australia and East Asia.
Electro-optics experts at Arete Associates in Northridge, Calif., are building multispectral unmanned aircraft sensor payloads to help unmanned helicopters detect and pinpoint enemy mines and obstacles in beach surf zones to help keep Marines safe during amphibious attacks. Officials of the Naval Surface Warfare Center Panama City Division in Panama City, Fla., announced a $17.6 million order n Dec 2019 to build AN/DVS-1 Coastal Battlefield Reconnaissance and Analysis (COBRA) Block I systems, a minehunting payload designed to operate aboard the MQ-8 Fire Scout unmanned aerial vehicle. COBRA Blocks II and III are in concept refinement and technology development.
The COBRA Block I system has two airborne payloads, the post mission analysis station, and the tactical control system segment for the UAV ground control station to plan the flight tracks for the COBRA mission, monitor the mission, and reprogram the flight path if necessary. The COBRA payload includes stabilized step stare digital gimbal, high-resolution multispectral imaging digital camera with spinning six-color filter wheel, a processing unit, and a solid-state data storage unit. The gimbal is about 19 inches long and 11 inches in diameter, and collects six different color-band images across a large area using a step-stare pattern. At the mission, personnel load its data storage unit into a post mission analysis station.
COBRA uses multispectral sensors to conduct unmanned aerial tactical reconnaissance to detect and localize mine fields and obstacles in the surf zone and beach zone prior to amphibious assault. A multispectral image contains data within specific wavelength ranges to extract information the human eye fails to capture with its receptors for red, green and blue. It measures light in 3 to 15 spectral bands to help detect otherwise-invisible mines. The AN/DVS-1 COBRA passive multispectral sensor system is for unmanned helicopters to perform daytime surface-laid mine line and obstacle detection in the beach zone, and has off-board processing, Arete experts say.
The earlier COBRA sensor was only capable of daytime operation. US Navy issued SBIR to develop a “Night Time” capability for Coastal Battlefield Reconnaissance and Analysis (COBRA) that will provide the necessary light source for the COBRA camera. The objective is to create a small form factor, light weight, low power, and medium repetition rate broadband illuminator that is robust enough to be integrated onto the Fire Scout MQ-8B. The innovation of the COBRA Multi-Spectral Illuminator will be to provide the broadband light that will provide sufficient illumination power for the COBRA camera to image mine lines and minefields at night.
Three illumination technologies– Red Green Blue/Infrared (RGB/IR) lasers, RGB/IR light emitting diodes, and small/lightweight strobe lighting, have been previously explored for potential multi-spectral illumination. However, none of these technologies are mature enough to meet the technical requirements for COBRA camera illumination without further technical development and innovation. However, any of these three technologies, as well as other approaches, could serve as the basis for meeting the objectives of this topic.
COBRA represents a real step forward for tactical reconnaissance of beach areas,” said Melissa Kirkendall, mine warfare programs. “With COBRA, the Navy/Marine Corps team can quickly look at a possible landing zone and detect mines and obstacles that would inhibit landing force mobility during an assault.” COBRA will be deployed from the littoral combat ship and is an integral part of the ship’s mine countermeasures mission package.
BAE Systems’s Archerfish mine neutralisers
BAE’s Archerfish, a remotely-controlled underwater vehicle equipped with an explosive warhead. Archerfish leverages on the high frequency sonar and low light video data to track mine threats and fires the shaped charge warhead, initiating a full order detonation of the target.
Archerfish is an expendable mine neutraliser or single shot mine disposal system. Archerfish can be launched and operated from surface ships, helicopters and unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs). It is deployed from a launch ‘cradle’ with a fibre optic data link providing exacting command of the weapon. Through the use of high frequency sonar and low light video data, Archerfish will identify mine threats and then emit a shaped charge warhead, initiating a full order detonation of the target.
It is capable of overcoming the threat of modern mines which have become increasingly resistant to traditional methods of mine disposal. Archerfish combats the resistance of Insensitive munition mines to disposal whilst reducing resource outlays. Clearance time is lowered by a factor of 4 units and through life costs are also reduced due to the integration of the warhead and package.
The fibre-optic spools will link the Archerfish mine neutraliser and the launch platform, which is an MH-60S helicopter deployed from the US Navy’s littoral combat ships. The advanced technologies of these systems deliver a comprehensive, end-to-end solution – detection to neutralization – enabling the Navy to safely and effectively execute its mission with reduced risk to its ships and crews
Archerfish’s credentials are impressive and it is currently undergoing qualification with the United States Navy as part of the MH60s helicopter Airborne Mine Neutralisation System (AMNS). It has been selected as the Common Neutraliser to ultimately equip all United States Navy Mine Countermeasure platforms.
Royal Australian Navy is introducing a deployable Mine Counter-Measures (MCM) capability under the first phase of Project SEA 1778.
The RAN is looking to replace its four legacy Huon-class minehunter coastal ships (MHCs) with a new deployable MCM capability. Captain Bryan Parker, the RAN’s Commander Mine Warfare, Clearance Diving, Hydrographic, Meteorological, Oceanographic and Patrol Force (COMMHP), said the Task Group MCM capability aimed to provide a tactical capability essential to reducing the hazard of mines in the littoral maritime domain for Navy’s deployed Fleet, while also minimizing direct exposure of its personnel to dangerous sea mines.
“By its very nature, MCM operations are a time-consuming task and conventional minehunters have a relatively slow speed of advance compared to our other warships. We are aiming to provide an MCM capability in-stride with, or in some cases ahead of, deploying maritime task groups to effectively speed up the time taken on this important function and enabling maritime maneuver,” Parker said.
“We need an organic MCM capability that’s designed to burst out of the back of the Landing Helicopter Dock (LHD) and clear a lane to the beach so the landing force can go ashore,” said Cmdr. Mick Parker, the operational requirements sponsor for mine warfare at the Navy Strategic Command. “SEA 1778 provides an initial interim MCM effect for a single task group.” The SEA 1778 package is relatively small. The entire system can be containerized, shipped to a task group such as the RAN’s amphibious ships, the new Arafura-class OPV or the Hunter-class future frigate. It can then be dispatched to another location if necessary. It uses manned and unmanned surface vessels and autonomous underwater vehicles that can search an area from a safe distance. Thales Australia is the prime contractor for SEA 1778 PH I.
“The unmanned boats (USVs) can tow the Australian Minesweeping System (AMAS) sweep, made by Thales, which is a towed magnetic and acoustic multi-influence sweep for detonating influence mines. If you know there’s a mine out there, you can send out one of the unmanned boats and trigger the mine using the AMAS,” said Troy Stephen who is the Director of the Underwater Systems Business for Thales Australia. “The AMAS is a proven capability used by many navies around the world.”
General Dynamics Mission Systems Bluefin Robotics General Dynamics Mission Systems Bluefin Robotics of Quincy, Massachusetts, has delivered both 9-inch and 12-inch diameter Bluefin unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs) for the program. The Bluefin-9 is 2-man portable, and can be placed into the water from the boats and retrieved over the transom. The larger AUV uses a stern launch and recovery system on the Steber support boat that has been developed by Thales. Both UUVs are fully autonomous, and feature Sonardyne Solstice high-resolution Multi-Aperture Sonar (MAS); the same Removable Data Storage Module (RDSM); and the same 1.9 kWh Li-ion batteries (the Bluefin-9 has one; the Bluefin-12 has four, so the Bluefin-12 can conduct missions of up to 24 hours or longer). Stephen said the Bluefin UUVs can also do underwater surveys for harbor clearance or to map out a lane for an amphibious force beach landing.
The Bluefin vehicles have the ability to be configured with automatic target recognition using software from SeeByte of Edinburgh, Scotland, so they can identify mine-like objects onboard the vehicle to create an image of the target, and can return with the data for post processing right on the surface boat. Both the Bluefin-9 and Bluefin-12 use commercial off-the-shelf sensors to collect bathymetric and environmental data, including data on water currents, temperature, salinity and turbidity; the Nortek Doppler Velocity Log (DVLs) for current measurements; and the Sonardyne Solstice Multi-Aperture Sonar (MAS) for high-resolution imagery even in murky littoral waters.
“Solstice uses multiple elements to generate an image, and in doing that, we improve the signal to noise ratio, and in doing that we extend the range,” said Ioseba Tena, the global business manager for defence and robotics at Yateley, UK-based Sonardyne International Ltd. “We’re extending the range by virtue of doing a better job of how we process and dynamically focus the data, to ensure the best performance in real-time.” Tena said the Solstice and Bluefin vehicles can “fly” at speeds up to 6 knots, although most UUVs don’t operate that fast. “The beauty with a synthetic aperture sonar is that you get a constant area coverage rate. If you go faster, the range comes down, just by virtue of how the system processes the data. And if you go slower, the range goes up.”
When mines are found and are to be destroyed, the SEA 1778 kit includes the Atlas Elektronik SeaFox (Bremen, Germany) expendable mine neutralization system, as well as the Rotinor (Stuttgart, Germany) Black Shadow diver delivery vehicle to transport divers to place detonation charges near mines, depending on the environment and tactical situation. The MAS Zengrange (Wellington, New Zealand) Command Initiated Detonation Systems (CIDS) is used to initiate the detonation. According to Sutherland, the new autonomous and unmanned technologies will allow the RAN to search for, classify, identify and dispose of sea mines more safely and efficiently and limit the danger factor presented when personnel are directly involving in mine removal and destruction.
European Unmanned Maritime Systems projects
The European Defence Agency (EDA) is continuing to promote maritime affairs and to develop, with Member States, the next generation of mine counter measure solutions via the successful delivery of Unmanned Maritime Systems projects.ATLAS Remote Combined Influence Minesweeping System (ARCIMS) is manufactured by Atlas Elektronik UK. Based on an unmanned surface vessel (USV) platform, the ARCIMS is intended to offer next-generation mine countermeasures (MCM) capability to the naval forces.
The ARCIMS with ‘in-theatre’ proven technology is an ideal platform for multi-influence minesweeping missions. It offers remote mine hunting and disposal payloads in a flexible and cost-efficient package to counter a range of mine threats. Meanwhile, mine-hunting methods have grown increasingly sophisticated as well, but it costs 10 times as much and it’s 10 time slower to remove a mine as to lay it. In an effort to make mine-hunting operations faster, cheaper, and safer, France and Britain are looking into robotic systems that have a high degree of autonomy.
French Defence Procurement Agency (DGA) has teamed up with UK’s Defence Equipment and Support organization, to create high-tech robotic systems capable of locating and neutralizing naval mines and other Underwater Improvised Explosive Devices (or UWIEDs) with greater ease and accuracy. When deployed, Thales sees the mine hunters of tomorrow as a fleet of underwater robots, unmanned surface vessels, towed sonars, and remote operated vehicles connected by Iridium satellite links as well as radio, acoustic, and direct cable links that allow the command ship, robots, local operations centers, and Reach Back data centers to remain in close communications.
British Royal Navy testing minesweeping systems
The British Royal Navy is currently testing the first unmanned minesweeping system to be specifically designed to deal with modern mines along sea lanes. The autonomous system comprises an 11m-long ‘mother ship’, known as Hussar, followed by a series of small ‘coil auxiliary boats’ (CABs) that replicate ship signatures in order to detonate the latest underwater explosive devices, which could potentially enable the safe and effective clearing of minefields.
The Ministry of Defence (MOD) said the system has been designed and manufactured by Atlas Elektronik in Dorset, England, under a $20.3 million contract. “This autonomous minesweeper takes us a step closer to taking our crews out of danger and allowing us to safely clear sea lanes of explosives, whether that’s supporting trade in global waters and around the British coastline, or protecting our ships and shores,” Xinhua quoted Bebb as saying.
Easily transported by road, sea and air, the high-tech design means a small team could put the system to use within hours of it arriving in any theatre of activity, added Bebb. The sweeper system, which features a sense and avoid capability, could also work together with other similar autonomous systems for the common goal of making our waters safer, said the MOD. Royal Navy commander Mark Atkinson said: “In the digital age, magnetic minesweeping was becoming obsolete; it goes back to World War Two. “It could not deal with modern, digital mines.”
Brigadier Jim Morris from the Royal Marines who is senior responsible officer for the Mine Counter Measures and Hydrographic Capability (MHC) programme said: “The mine sweeping system is the Royal Navy’s first fully autonomous capability demonstrator and paves the way for the introduction of this technology across the full range of maritime capabilities.” “This autonomous system will restore the Royal Navy’s sweep capability, enabling it to tackle modern digital mines that may not otherwise be discovered in challenging mine hunting conditions.”
Thales Launches Pathmaster Unmanned Mine Countermeasures System
Thales Pathmaster draws on the latest imaging technologies and Thales claims that it is the most advanced unmanned mine countermeasures system in the world. It can be deployed from the shore, from a mine countermeasures vessel or from any other type of naval platform.
Pathmaster is equipped with SAMDIS, Thales’s latest-generation high-resolution synthetic aperture sonar. With its multi-aspect functionality, the SAMDIS sonar views targets from three different angles. The technology has previously been successfully evaluated by the French defence procurement agency (DGA). Thales is already using multi-aspect technology on the French-UK maritime mine countermeasures programme (MMCM).
Deep driving drone submarine
Worst of all are mines buried under the bottom of the sea. There is no sonar in current service that can find them, said Navy Captain Aaron Peters, an explosives ordnance disposal (EOD) specialist.
“The only things that can detect buried mines right now are your marine mammals,” he said, primarily trained dolphins. But the Navy is working on a new system called Knifefish, with a special low-frequency sonar that can penetrate ordinary soil and detect small, dense objects such as explosives. It won’t be ready until 2017.
European Maritime Mine Counter Measures project (MMCM) delivers modular toolbox
Belgium, Estonia, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden as well as Norway agreed on 8 October 2014 to launch a new research project regarding future Maritime Mine Counter Measures (MMCM) capabilities.
Compared to existing solutions, future MMCM capabilities are expected to bring increased flexibility through a modular “toolbox” comprising a range of systems adaptable to different platforms, environmental, or operational conditions. The use of unmanned vehicles will also be developed and new detection techniques could be introduced. Future MMCM operations are also expected to be conducted with state-of-the-art sensors and effectors carried and deployed from dedicated or hybrid platforms as well as from stationary or mobile shore installations.
MCM packages of LCM
While the Navy has traditionally employed expensive, manned aircraft and ships for mine clearing, it is now working on a slew of new robotic systems that can sweep, detect and neutralize the weapons as part of a countermeasure package that will be deployed off the service’s littoral combat ship.
The LCS is a metallic host ship designed to perform MCM remotely from outside the minefield by deploying unmanned systems to transit to the minefield and return after performing their missions. Looking forward, as more systems are being pushed to become expeditionary and platform-agnostic, these future MCM vehicles will need to be very modular and adaptive in terms of integrating into the host platform on which they might reside. Several USVs and UUVs are going through this development cycle, and the lessons.
The LCS MCM mission packages are systems being developed to support counter-mine operations by using air assets as well as unmanned surface and underwater vehicles (USVs and UUVs). The AMNS is deployed and towed from MH-60S helicopters to neutralize bottom and moored mines using an expendable mine neutralization device; ALMDS is mounted on the MH-60S to detect, classify and localize near-surface mines; and COBRA is mission hardware and software to be used on the MQ-8B Fire Scout UAV that provide surface-laid minefield and obstacle detection in the beach zone.
The systems currently employed for detection and classifications are:
• SQQ-32 variable-depth mine detection and classification sonar (MCM-1)
• AQS-24 multi-beam side-looking mine-hunting sonar (MH-53)
• Remote Multi-Mission Vehicle (LCS)
• AQS-20A Mine Hunting Sonar (MH-60S and with Remote Multi-Mission Vehicle from LCS)
• AES-1 Airborne Laser Mine Detection System (MH-60S)
Another platform under consideration for detection and classification is the common unmanned surface vehicle (CUSV).
Once a field has been mapped and objects classified, the target data is used by neutralization assets to reacquire (locate), verify (identify), and if required, neutralize the target.
The systems currently employed (or planned for future use) for reacquisition and neutralization are:
• SLQ-48(V) Mine Neutralization System (MCM-1)
• SLQ-60 SeaFox (LCS)
• AN/AQS-235 Airborne Mine Neutralization System (MH-60S or CUSV)
• Barracuda Mine Neutralization System (MH-60S or CUSV)
• EOD Divers with Navy Marine Mammals
The US Navy is trending towards a mix-and-match set of people, platforms and sensors to detect and destroy mines, said Marine Corps Maj. Gen. David Coffman, director of the expeditionary warfare division on the chief of naval operations staff (OPNAV N95), “The more the merrier in terms of diversity of approaches.”
US Navy is attempting to achieve a number of objectives concurrently, writes Maj. Gen. Christopher Owens Director, Expeditionary Warfare (OPNAV N95): “Our primary air and surface platforms must be replaced with multi-mission platforms-in particular, littoral combat ships and the MH-60. Our primary hunting, sweep and neutralization systems must be replaced with new technologies that will do the time consuming, dangerous, and dirty work. We must continue to increase our clearance and confidence levels across our portfolio of mine countermeasures programs.”
Textron Systems Corp. is continuing its support for a fast unmanned boat designed to provide the U.S. Navy’s Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) with unmanned minesweeping capability to detect, pinpoint, and destroy ocean mines The UISS, which uses the Textron Common Unmanned Surface Vessel (CUSV), will target acoustic, magnetic, and magnetic and acoustic combination mine types, and provide the LCS with a rapid, wide-area coverage mine-clearance capability to neutralize magnetic and acoustic influence mines.
US Navy’s fourth increment will deliver the Knifefish UUV, a development lead by General Dynamics Mission Systems based on the Bluefin-21 UUV equipped with a side-scan sonar that will provide a buried mine-detection capability up to a speed of three knots (5.5 kilometres-per-hour) to a depth of 275 metres/m (902 feet/ft).
Another platform the Navy is working with is Raytheon’s AQS-20 mine hunting sonar for the LCS mine countermeasure package. The system features four separate sonars in a compact, lightweight and hydro-dynamically stable towed body and can provide real-time, computer-aided detection and classification against mines, according to the company. The program of record for AQS-20 on the mine countermeasure package includes 24 systems, said Wade Knudson, senior director of undersea warfare systems at Raytheon.
End-to-End Mine Countermeasure Capability
Raytheon provides both a modern minehunting and mine neutralization capability to the U.S. Navy, which are two of the components in the mine countermeasure mission package for the Littoral Combat Ship class. Supporting mine-clearing operations in both deep-ocean and littoral waters, AN/AQS-20A minehunting sonar detects, localizes bottom, close-tethered and volume mines, and identifies bottom mines.
French and British Governments Jointly Develop Autonomous Underwater Mine-Hunting Robots
A set of geolocated Autonomous Underwater Vehicles (AUVs) will be used to locate the target, with the help of synthetic aperture sonar. The system would also use Towed Synthetic Aperture Sonar (T-SAS) with very high-resolution multiview imaging, while Unmanned Surface Vehicles (USV) with autonomous navigation and threat-avoidance sonar worked in conjunction with Remotely Operated Vehicles (ROV) capable of identifying and neutralizing mines by means of new analysis tools.
Following the first phase of the program in which two demonstrators have successfully proven their operational performances at sea, France and the United Kingdom marked the tenth anniversary of the Lancaster House treaties by signing a joint contract for Thales to start the production phase of MMCM to deliver eight unmanned mine hunting systems (four for France and four for the United Kingdom).
The MMCM program is the first step in the renewal of the operational concept for mine warfare in France and the United Kingdom, based on the use of unmanned systems which could potentially replace traditional minehunters. The subsystems developed for the programme by Thales and its partners include Unmanned Surface Vehicles (USV) to transport and connect solutions and a cutting-edge sonar ( SAMDIS ) offering unique Single Path Multi View capability to identify and classify threats. The SAMDIS sonar can be carried by Autonomous Underwater Vehicles (AUV) or by Towed Synthetic Aperture Multiviews ( TSAM ) vehicle operated from the USV. The USV can also carry a Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV) to neutralize the threats. The entire system is remotely supervised by operators working from a Portable Operational Centre (POC) capable of controlling up to three systems in parallel at sea.
MMCM is the only proven system to offer advanced technologies, including autonomy, to improve performance and productivity thanks to the combination of unrivalled real time user experience using big data exchanges with trusted augmented artificial intelligence (A 2 I) to provide huge improvement of customer trust in operation clearance and increase the security of national interests. As a result of Thales’s open-architecture approach to MMCM, these new technologies can be easily integrated into the overall system, providing the navies with the opportunity to introduce new operational capabilities, in a planned way, throughout the life of the system. After the success of the first configuration conducted under real operational conditions with the complete system, Thales is now fully committed to deliver the first operational systems to French and British navies by 2022.
The mine and mine-countermeasure technologies are a race akin to stealth-counter stealth race, not expected to subside very soon. With increasingly aggressive Russia and China amassing hundreds of thousands of increasingly sophisticated naval mines, a revolution in minesweeping and continuing research in the mine countermeasures is what is needed.